Canada’s Government Advertising Addiction

I’ve recently read two papers that, together, make the case that the Government of Canada has an addiction to advocacy advertising. Christopher Stoney and Tamara Krawchenko’s “Transparency and accountability in infrastructure stimulus spending: a comparison of Canadian, Australian, and US programs” is the lead article in the December 2012 issue of Canadian Public Administration (volume 55, number 4, pages 481-503). I had editorial responsibility for Murray Fulton and Michael Atkinson’s article “Understanding public sector ethics: beyond agency theory in Canada’s sponsorship scandal,” which will appear in the International Public Management Journal.

Stoney and Krawchenko’s article provides a rigorous comparison of the fiscal stimulus programs the three countries launched in response to the global financial crisis of 2008-09. They found that Canada’s “Economic Action Plan” was less transparent and accountable than its American and Australian counterparts, but displayed much more governmental advertising (see the table on p. 497). They concluded that “Canada stood out as having a concerted, centrally planned advertising campaign that, at times blurred the line between public and partisan interests.”

Fulton and Atkinson examined the sponsorship scandal from the standpoint of cognitive theory, attempting to explain the psychological processes that those in charge of the sponsorship program, particularly Chuck Guite, used to justify breeching standard procurement practices. Taken together, these articles suggest that the federal government, regardless of its political stripe, has an addiction to the use of advertising as a policy instrument, and that the line between policy advocacy and political promotion has become increasingly blurred.

A case could be made that advertising is an appropriate instrument as part of a fiscal stimulus package. Some components of the package (the Home Renovation Tax Credit) were intended to encourage spending by individuals, so it was essential that individuals were aware of those programs. The fact that one-third of Canada’s nine million owner-occupied households claimed expenditures under HRTC indicates that it was effectively publicized. Furthermore, one of the concerns during the financial crisis was the paradox of thrift: consumers, fearing the worst, would dramatically increase their savings rate, exacerbating the contraction. “Stay calm and carry on” messages about the economy would be appropriate for encouraging consumers to continue spending.

My concern now – in January 2013 – is that the rubric “Economic Action Plan” has long outlived the Global Financial Crisis. The meaning of Economic Action Plan has morphed from “emergency policies undertaken in response to the crisis” to “economic policies of the Harper Government.” And, since economic policy is the main priority of the Harper Government, Economic Action Plan has morphed further into “policies of the Harper Government.”

The Harper Government continues to spend heavily on advertising the Economic Action Plan. The Economic Action Plan incurred advertising expenditures of $54 million in 2009-10, and, given the frequency with which Canadians encounter Economic Action Plan ads, my guess is that its advertising expenditures remain at that level. The Economic Action Plan button remains visible all over the Canada website, for example at the bottom of Environment Canada’s weather information site (weatheroffice.gc.ca).

In effect, the Economic Action Plan has become a rubric for an ongoing program of advertising to promote the policies of the Harper Government and thereby promote the Harper Government.

The United States has much more stringent restrictions on advertising by the administration. There was no comparable promotion of the Recovery Act. The most I could find were infrequently watched videos posted by the White House. The Recovery Act finally became prominent as part of the 2012 election campaign because it was promoted by the Obama Campaign and attacked by the Romney Campaign.

Outside observers, particularly Canadians, criticize the American political system because of the unconstrained spending by political action committees permitted by the Supreme Court in its decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Electoral Commission. But we have our own problem of unconstrained policy advertising – with political overtones – by the federal government. Surely this is deserving of review and the creation of limits.

Scholars like Stoney and Krawchenko and Fulton and Atkinson are making important contributions to launching such a debate by pointing out the magnitude and urgency of the problem.

 

1 comment

  1. That final figure of $83.3 million for 2010-11 was nearly 20 per cent higher than the $69.8 million the former Liberal government spent in 2003-04. (Spending was much lower in 2004-05 and 2005-06, the last two years of Liberal rule, but that was largely because much federal advertising was suspended during those years’ election campaigns, as required by government policy.) Ottawa’s ad spending fell in the late stages of the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin era, partly as a result of intense scrutiny following what became known as the sponsorship scandal, which linked federal promotions to partisan wrongdoing.

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